Germaine Greer: Not about to change

"Women are 51 per cent of the population and they're mute," says the woman who has always voiced her views. Photographer: Sean Curtin

Germaine Greer, famously linked with the women’s movement, has been a passionate and fearless advocate on a wide range of issues for almost five decades – and she’s not about to change.

It is 46 years since an outspoken young Australian academic named Germaine Greer catapulted into global prominence with the publication of her controversial The Female Eunuch.

The book – the first of many she has penned – was a game changer, not only for Greer but for the growing women’s liberation movement. 

While much has changed since then, the indomitable Greer is still as feisty and opinionated as ever. The long-time activist, who this year turned 77, prefers people to disagree with her – and her views invariably evoke that response.

But she has found some calm in the serenity of her country home in the UK. She spends four months a year in Australia, whipping up the expected controversy as she wades into national debates, and for the remaining eight months does what an academic and author does – she observes, forms opinions, fashions arguments. 

Greer was born in Melbourne just before World War II and saw her father, Reginald, who had worked in newspaper advertising, return from war a “destroyed” man. The harsh discipline meted out to her by her mother, Peggy, is something the mature Greer still recalls with all the sadness and sense of injustice she felt as a child. 

Desperate for some intellectual rigour and determined to escape the environment of her childhood home and early convent education, she immersed herself in university and political life in Melbourne and Sydney.

She earned her arts degree in Melbourne and did her master’s in romantic poetry at the University of Sydney. Then she headed to Cambridge University in 1964 to do a doctorate and braved the thuggery of police on the streets of London to protest against the Vietnam War.

“I’m still the kind of feminist who believes that to be a warmonger and a feminist is impossible.”

Her time in London saw Greer marry for just three weeks (she still wonders why she did it: “I don’t believe in marriage”) and socialise and intellectualise during the heady days of the swinging ’60s with other Australian exports Clive James, Barry Humphries and Richard Neville.

Greer may be one of the most famous feminists of her lifetime, but hers is a particular brand of feminism that rattles both sides of the debate. Most recently, she’s offended many groups and been accused of “transphobia” after restating her views on transgender women. 

CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley interviewed Greer at her home in the UK just after what she says was Britain’s “stupid and chauvinistic” Brexit vote. The interview is featured in series two of In Conversation with Alex Malley, which airs on Sundays at 10am on Nine Network Australia.

Alex Malley: Germaine Greer, thank you very much for allowing me into this beautiful home of yours … there’s a sense of serenity here – these beautiful gardens that you’ve built around yourself. Your sense of nature seems to have grown and your connection to it; is that right?

Germaine Greer: I certainly hope so. I remember when I was first in Cambridge [in 1964], I never noticed anything. I didn’t know one crop from another; I didn’t know one hedgerow from another. I couldn’t get interested, much less become agitated, when I saw things dying.

I began to realise what kind of a planet we’ve got; there’s so much more than we deserve in this little planet. The thing is, we’re going to blow it. 

Malley: When you get that perspective of the universe and that we’re only a part of it, what seemed important once doesn’t seem so important now.

Greer: But I hope what also happens is you get a sense of catastrophe and of wantonness, of appalling wastefulness. The argument is always that we needed to do this to make more money or improve our lifestyle or raise our standard of living …

The Brexit vote

Malley: Let’s speak about Brexit as another potential catastrophe for the world. Were you stunned? 

Greer: Well, I wasn’t stunned – I was appalled. But to understand exactly how painful it was, you have to remember that I’m a child that was born in January 1939, on the edge of World War II, which made almost as little sense as World War I. There were lots of other ways of dealing with the situation that was developing. I grew up with a whole generation who were afraid of another war.

Those of us who’d done modern history … were pretty aware that nationalism was a dreadful disease that overcame people who were used to living in multicultural communities, speaking different languages, and who suddenly decided that they had to have one language … and all the minority groups need to be driven off into enclaves where they could exist in their own monoculture. And it just seemed mad and wrong. 

“I wasn’t so much afraid my mother would kill me, I was afraid I was going to kill her.”

So for England suddenly to announce in its stupid, chauvinistic way that it thought it might do better, that doesn’t strike me as an argument. It’s a bit like the British today going on about the 117 men who were killed in Iraq. What about the 150,000 civilian Iraqis? How important do these people think they are? I’m truly pissed off with them right now. 

And they even imagine that they can reconstruct their relationship with Australia. I remember how shocked Australians were to be dumped when Britain voted to join the EU [European Union]. And then typically, in a British fashion, they didn’t join the EU, they sat on the fence. They carped and whinged.

And instead of playing a leadership role and fixing what was wrong, they kept on whinging and saying, “make it worth our while”, until finally everyone was sick and tired of them.

Tough beginnings

Malley: I want to go back to your Melbourne childhood and the energy you had as a child. If I’d been a fly on the wall in your home in the ’40s and ’50s, tell me about mum and dad.

Greer: I was the eldest by a long way, because I was born in ’39, my sister in ’45 and my brother in ’49. My mother’s problem was me, because it had been expressed that way ever since I could remember. And I thought, “if I just get out of here, she would be able to relate properly to the people she called her children”. She never called me that.

My mother was very young when I was born. My father stayed in newspaper advertising for as long as he could, but once the war began to gather momentum, everything stopped. The only thing left to do was to enlist, so he enlisted. 

In New York after the publication of her first book, The Female EunuchOne of my earliest memories is going with my mother to Spencer Street Station to pick up my dad. I knew him from a photograph on the mantelpiece as this rather debonair, smiling young man. The man we found on the platform after everyone else was gone – because my mother couldn’t find him – was an old man with a scrawny neck in a big grey-blue overcoat who seemed very bewildered.

My mother sort of looked at him with her head on the side … she had to take him home. Nowadays, we would recognise my mother as Asperger’s. She had no friends, she didn’t really have a concept of a social world or even of how to deal with people – either she was afraid of them or she thought she was superior to them.

Either way, she was wrong … she just couldn’t figure out they were just like her. 

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I’ll give an example of what it was like for me as a small child living with Peggy Greer. I can remember this so clearly. I have to confess something here: if you’re going to hit a child, you don’t hit this one because she won’t forgive you. I mean she might want to … I’d been to Palm Sunday mass. It’s a long gospel, so you come home late from mass on Palm Sunday.

My mother said, “You’re late.” And I said, “Yes, it’s Palm Sunday.” And she said, “You’ve been talking to Pammy in the lane.” She hauled me off and belted me, hit me in the face – inexcusable. My teeth go through my bottom lip, the bottom lip pops open like a pomegranate. And there I am: told the truth, got belted, nothing unusual about that. So, I crawl off into a hole somewhere and Pammy comes down the lane. My mother says, “Did you see Germaine in the lane?” Pammy says, “No, I haven’t seen her anywhere.”

My mother comes into my bedroom and says, “I’m so sorry. I’m really very sorry.” She put iodine on my lip, which hurt so much. It was bad enough being slapped, then the iodine. Then she puts on my head a veil, which was the mosquito net we put over the bassinet ... and I can be a bride for the day. 

“It [The Female Eunuch] was the best book I could do at the time; it’s not a very good book.”

My mother was ridiculous around men. Ridiculous. I mean she could hardly behave rationally around any kind of a man. I thought that when I got myself out of the way, things would be better for my brother and sister. I suspect they weren’t but that’s not my story to tell.

I think my little sister had a tough time. I realised that when I walked away, I left her with no ally. But I didn’t really have any choice, I just had to go. I wasn’t so much afraid my mother would kill me, I was afraid I was going to kill her.

Malley: You’ve said that your dad didn’t take a lot of interest in your work. Have you ever reconciled that or what that was about? 

Greer: No, he just stopped thinking about us. My mother was smarter than he was but she was also mad. Well, mad is probably not the right word to use but she certainly was living in her own world. And in fact, her family knew that about her. Her brother told me when I was at Cambridge: “But of course, your mother was crazy.” And I said, “But you could have told me. I thought she was getting stuck into me because I somehow deserved it. I needed someone to tell me.”

There’s no way a child can work that out. I loved her, make no mistake. People say, “Why did you love your father?” And I say, “Because he didn’t hit me.”

Escape into academia

Malley: How was it different going from Melbourne to Sydney in those days in the academic circle?

Greer: The best person writing about this is Barry Humphries, and he’s very funny about the Melbourne Drift [a bohemian subculture] and just how dreadful these people were. Quite a few of them were academics; they were male supremacist to a fault.

The best thing a woman could be was silent and mysterious so they could just fill her up with fantasies of their own. I was really looking for intellectual rigour, which just wasn’t there.

[In Sydney] we were interested in the messages given by certain kinds of literature, comic strips, the kind of racism and sexism. I don’t think anybody understood sexism terribly well at that point – I guess that would include me – but it was exciting, the fact that they argued about issues and that they were rigorous with each other. 

Malley: From that, of course, came Cambridge – it seemed to be a watershed moment for you. 

Greer: Cambridge was innocent of student politics at the time. There was no idea that the studies should be more relevant to what was going on in the world … there was no concerted opposition to the Vietnam War.

I remember meeting an Australian academic and he said that the ballot was being drawn for Australians to go to Vietnam. And I suddenly thought, “my brother!” I couldn’t bear for them to send him to Vietnam, not because I thought he might be killed but because I thought he might kill in a way that he could not live with and come back utterly destroyed – I already had a father who’d come back destroyed. 

I wrote to daddy and said, “Please, you don’t have to send another member of our family to this war.” And he wrote back saying things like, “Well, you have to take this chance.”

I said, “Oh, what is the value of men that you think this even makes sense?” They think it makes sense to make war on somebody who isn’t doing what you want them to do. And so, you kill them and smash their buildings … it’s obviously not very clever. 

So then I began going to London to join the Australians against the Vietnam War. I can remember being so frightened on those demonstrations, because the police would join us in plain clothes with their pocket full of stones. At the opportune moment, they could start throwing the stones and then we’d all be beaten up.

I was still basically a common schoolgirl. I’m still the kind of feminist who believes that to be a warmonger and a feminist is impossible. You have to understand that the 21st-century wars, the 20th-century wars, are fought against civilian populations.

You don’t want to join the army and kill women and children as a feminist. We’re all over the place on that. It’s all about equality and it seems to be whatever men are doing, we want to do the same thing. We want to carry arms, we want to be in the infantry …

Power and solidarity

Malley: But for you, it’s never been about equality. When you wrote the now-legendary book The Female Eunuch, you’re about 30 … do you look at that book now and say, “Perhaps, I might have changed the tone or I might have had a different emphasis?” 

Greer: It was the best book I could do at the time; it’s not a very good book. I don’t want to rewrite it; I want it to be replaced by a completely different book, by a better book. There are more books on golf than there are on feminism. 

Malley: When you talk about feminism, the issue of self-determination seems to me to be the big part of it. Being different, determining your own future.

Greer: We won’t arrive at a more sensible arrangement unless women begin to understand their own peculiar role in their own powerlessness. Women don’t understand power at all. They’re 51 per cent of the population and they’re mute. Women who are being beaten up on a regular basis say nothing until the situation is irreparable. 

Women have got to start doing what men do for each other: men actually understand solidarity. Their first instinct is to defend another man if he’s being attacked by an outsider. They might have it out with him later. But the very first knee-jerk reaction is to close ranks. 

You see it everywhere – in the professions, in trade unions. And men enjoy each other’s company, they seek each other’s company. They don’t expect to mine the relationship for some sort of loyalty. I want women to be as interested in each other as men are.

In Conversation with Alex Malley airs at 10am on Sundays on Nine Network Australia.

Germaine Greer's Australia: Then and now

Malley: I want to ask you about Australia, because you’ve spent two-thirds of your life in the UK. You come to Australia each year. How have you seen Australia develop over the years and what sorts of issues do you think we need to think about as a country?

Greer: I left Australia in ’64; Australia was very much an outlier of Europe. Australia now sees itself as part of Asia and that’s a huge change of identification. But there are huge difficulties, because Australia remains monoglot. 

So, Australia is hanging on to its role in Asia but it’s got a very similar role to the role of Britain and the EU, in that it’s not really entering into the Asian sphere in the way that it should.

I think Malcolm [Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull] is a very clever man and I kind of trust him ... but I can’t see him having the charisma to deal with the Indonesian heads of state or Malaysian. These are very, very clever people and we should be a lot closer to them than we are. 

“Women have got to start doing what men do for each other: men actually understand solidarity.”

We need to know how those huge republics work. We also need to know how their brand of Islam works. We’ve got to make real cultural connections here. It’s true to say that more people are learning Mandarin now than would have been learning Mandarin 40 years or 50 years ago, but there’s a bit more to it than that. 

Malley: Isn’t the subtext to all that the lack of political leadership? The lack of understanding that these electoral cycles are driving us crazy in Australia? 

Greer: The two-party system ... isn’t working. Our two parties are too alike; there’s nothing to choose between them. One doesn’t represent labour, the other doesn’t represent capital. They both represent the same mangled mixture of both.

A three-year term is ridiculous. You start preparing for the next election as soon as you’re in power. And you keep doing things in a hurry that you don’t have time to work out. 

Malley: A lot of people have agreed and disagreed with you ...

Greer: That’s all I’ve ever wanted anybody should do. They don’t have to agree; I’m happier if they disagree.

Malley: What do the next 10 years hold for you? 

Greer: Death probably.

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